Wesley Mathews: Lighting the Fire That Keeps Blazing in Portland

LaMarcus Aldridge is rising. Portland’s power forward has annihilated Rockets defenders for the first two games of the Blazers-Rockets first round clash. Wesley Mathews continues to play his role of defensive disruptor, outside shooter and surprisingly effective post-up option for the Blazers. Mathews may have the makings of a future coach.

From Jason Quick’s Oregon Live piece:

HOUSTON – As the Portland Trail Blazers today enjoy probably the highest of their highs this season after an overtime victory in Game 1 at Houston, it seems apt to remember it wasn’t long ago when this Blazers team had reached the lowest of its lows.

It was March 25, in Orlando, and the Blazers had just suffered a 95-85 defeat to the rebuilding Magic. It was their third loss in row. The eighth in the last 11. And what seemed like a certain playoff berth had now eroded to a precarious 2 ½ game lead over Phoenix.

Then, it happened.

“Wes did it,’’ LaMarcus Aldridge said. “Give all the credit to Wesley Matthews. His speech.’’

Before the players had even taken off their uniforms, the Blazers starting shooting guard launched into an expletive-laden, to-the-point message that it was now or never for the Blazers.

“Everybody has seen me mad on this team, but I think they saw me at another level where it was beyond a rage or an anger,’’ Matthews said.

Things happen inside a locker room over the course of the season. Tempers flare. Moods swing. And sometimes team meetings sprout up. Thirteen days before the Orlando loss, the Blazers held a team meeting in San Antonio, prompted by Damian Lillard.

Lillard said the San Antonio meeting was rooted in encouragement, and in trying to find a spark. In Orlando, with Matthews spitting hot coals, Lillard said it was “desperation. It was more like life and death. That this is it.’’

Said Matthews: “It was ‘This is a wake the (expletive) up!’’’

The Blazers won their next game in Atlanta. Then, on a back-to-back that capped a five-game trip, they trounced Chicago. They came home and beat Memphis. The next thing Rip City knew, the Blazers were rolling again.

Portland finished the season winning nine of 10, and counting Game 1, they have won 10 of their last 11.

It helped that immediately after Matthews’ speech, Aldridge returned and played brilliantly. But the players said in the course of a long season, when things tend to blur, Matthews’ moment in Orlando stands out.

“I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me that question,’’ Nicolas Batum said. “Ever since that game, something happened. But I don’t want to talk about it, because I’m superstitious.’’

The thing about Matthews’ speech is that he wasn’t going to say anything until he was prompted by Aldridge.

“Me and L.A. are like brothers,’’ Matthews said. “We can read each other.’’

Aldridge was in an awkward spot. He had missed the past seven games with a back injury, which required him to watch the games from the locker room. He said he had been detached from the heat of the battle, and felt unable to voice his leadership.

It needed to come from somebody in the trenches. Somebody whose voice carried weight in the locker room.

“I’m not big on being a rah-rah guy when I’m not in the fire with the guys,’’ Aldridge said. “So I just pulled him aside and said ‘I can’t talk, but you have to talk.’

“I think everybody sees what Wes is about, and everybody respects his effort,’’ Aldridge said. “And when he talks, it’s not empty air. He says things that need to be said.’’

Matthews said he was reluctant at first. He had already been vocal with the team earlier in the season. He felt like everything had already been said. But then Aldridge said something that clicked with him.

“He mentioned that we only had 10 games left,’’ Matthews said of Aldridge. “And I don’t know why, but that just kind of made me go.’’

He stood before the team and laid it out.

“I said ‘We have played this hard, for this long, at this record, and talked about this for this long … and we are pissing it away. ’’’ Matthews said. “ I said ‘We will all regret this if we don’t make it. But we have 10 games: we are not safe. We are not guaranteed. These teams are right behind us. We have no tie breakers with anybody, which means we have to win.’’

He set a goal for the team to win seven of its final 10 games and he suggested each player look at himself and examine how he could better help the team. He went first.

“I said I need to rebound,’’ Matthews said. “That’s where I could help us. I can’t keep having games where I’m having zero, one, two rebounds anymore. I said whatever it is, you have to do a little bit more.’’

Mo Williams, in his 11th NBA season, said there are moments in a season when a teammate speaks up and it catches everybody’s attention. He said it tends to have a refocusing effect.

“That was one of those times,’’ Williams said.

When he was done, Matthews said he knew he reached his teammates.

“I could tell by the reception I got afterward,’’ Matthews said. “It was quiet. I was as irritated as I’ve been but I was looking straight ahead when I was talking. Then I looked around, and everybody’s eye was on me. They knew. They could feel it.’’

Lillard, who led the emotional meeting in San Antonio, called Matthews’ speech “huge” because “it was one of those breaking points.’’

“When Wes spoke up, everybody realized how big of a deal it was,’’ Lillard said. “It was no longer ‘We’re still good. We’ve got this.’ It was, ‘We’ve gotta find a way.’’

“Finding a way” has been somewhat of a mantra with this team late in the season, and into this first round series with Houston. The Rockets are favored and have the star power, but the Blazers keep vowing to find a way, and preach the way to do it is by sticking together.

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Western Conference Spotlights: Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Howard and Harden

We’re only four nights into the NBA playoffs. It’s way too early to draw any definitive conclusions. Five of the first eight playoff games were won by road teams, the most in NBA history. Home court advantage has been stolen away like a package of Slim Jim’s from a 7-Eleven. One noticeable early trend is the importance of mental toughness when the games get defensive, as they do in the playoffs. Overly aggressive stars are hurting their teams. One game is the smallest of sample sizes, but if you’re thinking about how NBA greatness is defined, one trait is the ability to make smart decisions while under intense pressure. Mental toughness is about controlled and decisive aggression, rather than constant assertiveness. Coaches talking about “playing with force” and energy, but an inability to adjust to each scenario will become a liability in the playoffs. Here are players that made less-than-smart decisions early on.

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Fouls often cause Blake Griffin great frustration.

Fouls often cause Blake Griffin great frustration.

One of the most physically dominant forwards in the league, Blake Griffin’s attacking offensive style is nearly unstoppable now that he’s developed a decent fifteen-foot jumper. The Clippers are facing Golden State in Round One. The Warriors lost defensive anchor Andrew Bogut to a fractured rib in the third-to-last regular season game. Bogut is one of the premier rim-protectors in the league. Without Bogut, the Clippers will penetrate at will. Bogut’s absence provides center Jermaine O’Neal more playing time. Griffin was coaxed into two early fouls by the ageless O’Neal early in the first quarter of Game 1. A shrewd player would have been extra careful after drawing two early whistles. Forty seconds after re-entering the game at the beginning of the second quarter, Blake was hit with an offensive foul on a drive to the basket. Third foul. Back to the bench. Third quarter begins. Griffin plays well, scoring at will and getting the offense rolling. Golden State gets into a scoring rhythm and the game stays close. With just under three minutes left, Griffin gets hit with his fourth foul, taking the David Lee bait on an up-fake. Griffin now has four fouls. There is no way he should allow himself to get called for a 5th before the end of the third quarter. Instead, he attempts to take a charge on Lee, and finds himself back on the bench, with only one foul left. Coach Doc Rivers is forced to keep Griffin on the bench until five minutes remain in the game. Griffin ends up fouling out with 48 seconds remaining. Griffin plays a total of 19 minutes in Game 1.

Two nights later, Griffin went out and torched the Warriors in Game 2, scoring 35 points on only 17 shots. Game 1 may end up being Griffin’s worst playoff game of this potentially long Clippers playoff run. On the other hand, he has repeatedly shown he can implode if his aggressiveness is exploited on the defensive end. The Clippers have too much firepower for a depleted Warriors team that will increasingly miss Bogut as the series progresses. Griffin’s ability to adapt to whistles and match-ups will be tested throughout the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

An example of Westbrook unleashing his trademark scream.

An example of Westbrook unleashing his trademark scream.

Russell Westbrook is probably criticized more often than he deserves. One of the fastest players in the league, with or without the ball, Westbrook can transform a game with a ten-point burst of steals, open-court dunks, and buzzer-beating pull-up jumpers. Westbrook oozes confidence in the same way Kobe and Wade do. On the other hand, he can shoot the Thunder out of close games in a hurry.

Oklahoma City is embroiled in vicious first-round match-up with the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite coming in as the 7th seed in the West, Memphis went 40-19 with center Marc Gasol, and advanced to last year’s Western Conference Finals. Suffice it to say Memphis is a difficult test. They are as fierce and cohesive a defensive unit as exists in the NBA. Tony Allen, Memphis’ maniacally physical and amazingly instinctive perimeter defender, can limit the unstoppable Kevin Durant simply by denying him the ball as well as anyone. Memphis refuses to turn the ball over (6 in Game 1, 9 in Game 2), which keeps OKC in the half-court. In those situations, when Durant is blanketed by Allen, Westbrook has to make decisions. As impressive as Westbrook was at times throughout Game 2 (29 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds), his shot selection in the fourth quarter and overtime was questionable. After a 1 for 4 third quarter, Westbrook shot 4 for 11 in the fourth, as the Grizzlies vaunted defense went on amber alert, as they faced a 2-0 series deficit. In those brutal stretches, nobody scores on the Grizzlies, so maybe focusing on Westbrook’s 5 of 15 second half is nit-picking. On the other hand, Kevin Durant’s first fourth quarter basket came with only 3:34 remaining. Is it Scott Brooks’ fault, for not figuring out a way for Durant to free himself from Allen’s grasp? Is it Westbrook’s over-dribbling? Whatever the case, the Thunder can’t rely on Westbrook only as a shot-clock-buzzer-beating threat every time down. Credit the stifling defense of Memphis for swarming Durant and forcing Westbrook to take the shots. Look toward Westbrook when Spurs-level ball-movement is the only clear way to bend the Memphis defense and create a somewhat open look. Over-dribbling might mean a premature playoff exit for OKC once again.

Dwight Howard and James Harden, Houston Rockets

In Game One of the Rockets-Blazers series, a furiously contested fourth quarter and overtime resulted in the Portland Trail Blazers outlasting the frustrated Rockets in Houston. Dwight Howard and James Harden, the team’s two superstars, could not save Houston from LaMarcus Aldridge’s avalanche of points (46) and rebounds (18).  Instead, Howard’s insistence on posting-up and his inability to connect on free-throws (quite costly in Dwight’s case) ground Houston’s offense to a halt. Coach Kevin McHale faces a quandary: he has a team that thrives in the open court and playing a helter-skelter style of offense, yet he should have a match-up advantage if he can force the Blazers to double-team Howard in the post. Instead, Robin Lopez defended Howard one-on-one, and Howard only managed 27 points on 21 field goal attempts and 17 free-throws. McHale would have been wise to send Howard to the bench when Portland employed their “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy. The Rockets led by 10 with 5:43 remaining in the game. After missing two, Howard connected on the subsequent pair, before he clanged four more. Howard standing at the foul line halted any momentum the Rockets had and the Blazers erased the deficit.

Meanwhile, James Harden’s impact on the game lessened as the contest progressed. Harden’s inefficient offensive performance (8 of 28 from the field and only 3 of 14 from deep), kept Houston from stretching their lead in the second half. The Howard-Harden combo have the potential to dominate any playoff game, but without transition opportunities, Houston, like Oklahoma City, becomes isolation-heavy. They rely on Harden getting to the free-throw line and Howard scoring down-low (without the free-throw line). The Blazers, like Memphis, limited their turnovers (only 12), with LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 46 points on 31 attempts, while turning the ball over only three times.


The Clippers, Thunder and Rockets all may advance past the opening round of this year’s playoffs, but their weaknesses have been exploited already, lessening their hopes of defeating the nearly flawless Spurs in the coming weeks.


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2014 Playoff Ramblings, Game 1, Volume One

Lots of noises. Over the course of each first round series, we’ll get more signals. Yes, there are issues with plus-minus numbers, but they can tell a story over the course of six or seven games. After one game, here are a few notable plus-minus numbers, plus a big old bag of observations from each Game 1.

Brooklyn-Toronto (Dinosaurs vs. Raptors)

Kevin Garnett: +10 (20 min)

Andray Blatche: -16 (16 min)

Greivis Vasquez (18 pts, 8 ast, 4 reb): +8 (29 min)

Paul Pierce’s 4th quarter mini-heroics (9 points, classic slow-motion drives) were lovely. Amir Johnson looks like he’s playing while injured, which makes the Nets rebounding issues slightly less important. DeMar DeRozan’s first half was nonexistent. After all of those years watching Pierce and Garnett as a Celtic, it’s hard to believe, but I genuinely want them to advance as Nets. I suppose I can’t ignore my love for both guys. Go Nets.


Golden State-LA Clippers (Dubs vs. Lob City)

Draymond Green: +17 (22 min)

Jamal Crawford (2 of 11 from field, 1 of 5 from deep): -15 (22 min)

Blake Griffin played fewer minutes than Draymond Green (22 to 19). Chris Paul received zero help due to the impressive Warriors defense, led by Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Warriors defense blanketed the perimeter. The great ball movement that Griffin helped provide the Clippers through much of the second half of the regular season was absent to his presence on the bench. Game Two should be intriguing. 


Atlanta-Indiana (Overlooked vs. Over-with?)

DeMarre Carroll: +15 (39 min to lead Hawks)

Luis Scola: -12 (19 min)

Wow. I guess I shouldn’t be so stunned, but I am. I remain steadfast in the belief that the Pacers will not lose this series, but they are doing their best to convince everyone that they can. Still a bit surprised Larry Bird went public with his criticisms of Frank Vogel. That didn’t help. Roy Hibbert needs to inspire this group and get over himself. Man, they could use Danny Granger’s outside shooting right about now.


Memphis-OKC (Grit and Grind vs. Loud City)

Mike Miller: -21 (20 min)

Caron Butler: +18 (31 min)

Derek Fisher: +15 (12 min)

side note: Grizzlies shot 18 of 31 (58%) from the line, Randolph 7 of 12. For Memphis to have a chance this has to improve. Oklahoma City jumped out early. Memphis crawled their way back into the game. Durant took the Thunder home. Caron Butler was a sneaky good signing, and may make the difference in a few games during this Thunder run.


Portland-Houston (Rip City vs. Hardly-any-D)

Many will mention Aldridge’s heroic effort because of the 46 points and 18 rebounds. How about the importance of taking decent shots without turning the ball over? How about doing that against a team that loves to push the pace and get easy buckets in transition? How about 46 points on 31 shots (efficient because of the 13 free-throw attempts) and only 3 turnovers. Aldridge was a force all night. A stabilizing force that derails Houston’s attempts to get out in the open floor. The Blazers couldn’t have drawn it up any better. Still, they gave up 106 points in regulation and 120 including overtime. Houston’s offense is that good. Dwight Howard is a match-up nightmare for Robin Lopez, but Lopez fought hard all night. This series will feature numerous nail-biters. The Blazers played their best players major minutes (42 or more for the starters except for Lopez, who fouled out) as expected. Terry Stotts’ strategy to wear Harden down worked beautifully. James Harden shoots 8 of 28 and 3 of 14 from distance. Wesley Mathews forced James Harden to work all night on the defensive end, which contributed to that woeful shooting. The Blazers play good defense among those starting five and they refuse to foul. Houston didn’t get to the line in the first half. If the Blazers can continue to take care of each possession, they will give themselves a chance to win each game. Howard will play better as the season progresses

The questions: Can Kevin McHale regroup and figure out a way to keep Harden fresher and will McHale take Howard out if Hack-a-Dwight continues to trip up the Rockets offense?


San Antonio-Dallas (Old Masters and Kawhi vs. Old Master and Okays)

Talk about a strange game. The Spurs played impeccable defense in the 1st and 4th quarters, holding Dallas to 12 in the opening period, and holding the Mavs without a field goal for the final 7 minutes and 45 seconds of the game. I’m not counting a meaningless lay-up by Devin Harris as time expired. The Spurs are the steamroller of the NBA. The Mavs folded like a…(House of Cards? Tent? Lying kindergartner?). Wow.

Amazingly, Dallas kept their turnovers way down, committing only 8. On the flipside, they shot only 13 free-throws and had only 15 assists. Long, contested mid-range jumpers. Despite shooting 3 of 17 from deep, the Spurs survived. For all of the Patty Mills regular season love, he was invisible in this game (0 for 3 from deep, 0 assists, o steals in 14 minutes, minus-15).


Chicago-Washington (Slow and Ugly vs. Nene’s Knees)

Who deserves more love: Nene or Professor Miller? Both were crucial to the Wizards win over the Bulls in Game 1. Coach Randy Wittman was forced to leave the ageless Andre Miller in the game deep into the fourth quarter, because he was running the offense with more precision and effectiveness than the fantastically athletic John Wall. Wall sat on the bench and looked somewhat saddened by Miller’s savvy on the court. Nene was huge for Washington, hitting 11 of 17 from the field, and keeping the Bulls rebounding in check.

D.J. Augustin, who has received heaping buckets of praise over the past few months, came crashing back to earth with a 3 of 15 shooting performance, though he did make all 10 of his free-throws. Chicago’s 5 of 20 shooting from distance kept their offense from clicking. Credit the Wizards’ swarming defense. This series will likely go the distance.


Miami-Charlotte (Dwayne’s Knees vs. Al’s Ankles)

Not much to say here. Al Jefferson’s great first quarter was all Charlotte could muster offensively. Jefferson limped to the sideline early in the second quarter, seemingly bothered by an ankle injury, and wasn’t the same afterward. Without a dominant Big Al, Charlotte can’t score at all.




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